Report. 'It's like having a woolen blanket over your head.' A gray, uniform, impenetrable mass stretches from Turin to Milan. On June 18, a trial of former public administrators charged with the crime of negligent environmental pollution will begin in Turin.

In the Po Valley, a warm-air blanket is creating deadly smog

In Emilia-Romagna, a notice went out advising people to avoid jogging and stay at home. Meanwhile, the website and social media channels of the Ministry of Health failed to acknowledge the great smog emergency in the Po Valley, photographed by satellites and visible to the naked eye to anyone who looks out from a height of at least 200 meters towards the Apennines in Emilia or the Prealps in Lombardy and Veneto: a gray, uniform, impenetrable mass.

“It’s like having a woolen blanket over your head,” which keeps the air stagnant, making it more foul with each passing day, explained Vanes Poluzzi, the head of the Regional Air Quality Topic Center of ARPAE, the Emilia-Romagna Environment Agency, analyzing the conditions causing the smog that is suffocating the region and the Po Valley area overall.

“We are experiencing a particularly ‘unfortunate’ condition from the meteorological point of view, which leaves us with no escape, and which is unfortunately boosting” the trend of the rising peak concentrations of pollutants, Poluzzi added. In essence, he explained to ANSA, “on the one hand we have a very powerful anticyclone, so we are in the middle of winter, but we are getting 5-6 degrees more than the climatological averages for the period, including in the mountains.” At the same time, there is a persistent mass of warm air at high altitudes that does not allow the pollutants we emit below to spread upward. It effectively acts as a non-breathable blanket.

Meanwhile, in Lombardy, PM10 dust particles are still above limits in much of the region, so that first-level anti-smog measures – such as a ban on the circulation of the most polluting vehicles during the day – are in effect in nine provinces, including Milan. The data recorded at the measurement points in Milan and outskirts range from a low of 73 to a high of 122, with 111 in Monza and Brianza, 78 in Como, 100 in Lecco and 94 in Varese, more than double or close to double the legal limit. And while the region is being vague about a “control room” being set up to address the problem at the Po Valley level, the municipality of Brescia has made a request to the government, the Lombardy region and the province to decrease the speed limit on the highway to 110 kilometers per hour (80 on the ring road) and to think about more stringent anti-smog measures.

While traffic stands out as the top source of pollution, one can also take measures on central heating systems, for example: despite the mild autumn and winter, former minister Cingolani’s 2022 ordinance – which, faced with a need to reduce gas consumption, had shortened the times for turning on systems and reduced maximum heating temperatures in 2022 – was not renewed this year. That emergency measure produced a 20 percent savings in methane consumption, which also translated into a reduction in polluting emissions of the number one factor causing smog.

The urgency to take action is tied to the short-term impact of air pollution on health. Last week, Paolo Pandolfi, director of the public health department of the Local Health Unit of Bologna, gave a preview of some data from the Health Assessment of Air Quality in Bologna in 2022, which will be published at the end of March. Smog is resulting in deaths (due to heart attacks or bronchitis) and hospitalizations attributable to exposure to certain levels of pollutants.

“After a decline in these effects had been observed at the end of the ‘00s, in recent years (controlling for the COVID “bubble”) we are seeing an upswing,” he explained. “We live in a particularly polluted area.” The data included the estimate that “every 10 micrograms more of PM concentration in Bologna corresponds to a 1 percent increase in heart attacks,” Pandolfi said.

For the Bologna metropolitan area, in 2022, the percentage of all-cause mortality attributable to short-term exposure to pollutants was 0.65 percent (at a threshold of 10 micrograms per cubic meter) for nitrogen dioxide, 0.63 percent (threshold of 10 μg/m3) for PM10 and 0.89 percent for ozone (threshold of 70 μg/m3). The situation doesn’t look good for the long term either: exposure to PM2.5 “is attributable to a reduction in life expectancy at birth of almost 5 months.”

On June 18, a trial of former public administrators charged with the crime of negligent environmental pollution, including Piero Fassino, Chiara Appendino and Sergio Chiamparino, will begin in Turin. The prosecutors who have put the defendants on trial are accusing them with regard to exceeding the pollution limits set by law, in qualitative and quantitative terms, for a number of days in excess of what was established by the legal norms for the years from 2015 to 2019.

It’s time to take action, but EU countries are instead pushing for delaying the requirement to meet new air pollution targets by a decade to 2040, putting the brakes on the fight against dirty air. Meanwhile, there are 59 infringement cases pending against EU member countries for failing to meet current air pollution targets. The top offenders are Poland, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania and Portugal.

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